Church History for Dummies #1: Gnosticism

This post introduces a new series here at Mild-Yoke. We are some two thousand years apart from the early church, a number which is certainly hard to wrap our modern minds around. This time-gulf is altogether different from the earthly waters we’ve since learnt how to navigate and (somewhat) master, and yet it is a gulf that is vitally important in today’s world.

We’re quickly and easily tempted to what’s new, flashy, and “in”; ours is the era of incessant progress. History (church history in particular) teaches and provides us with a much needed foil to both folly and fragility. I have in mind Michael Haykin’s observation that history “liberates us from the present”[1]. Haykin explains, “Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices, which would go unnoticed otherwise”[2].

With this in mind, I hope and pray that this series of short introductions to people, movements and thoughts would aid Christ’s church, enabling us, in part, to be liberated from ourselves, to defend the faith, ultimately fostering spiritual growth. In many ways we are repositories of what has come before us, and any instrument that induces humility and modesty in us is to be embraced with two arms.


The term “Gnostic” identifies not just one sect, but a variety of religious movements that took place in the second century AD. At the heart of the Gnostic movements was an underlying idea that salvation rested in secret knowledge, which is where we get the word “gnostic” from (Gr. gnosis). Christian writings during the second century attempted to reveal how these teachings and ideas were heretical perversions of Christian orthodoxy.

At the heart of the Gnostic movements was an underlying idea that salvation rested in secret knowledge.

Typically, Gnosticism is defined by sharp dualism between a transcendent God and an ignorant creator. From here follows several dualisms: all matter and physical life was considered to be evil, whilst the divine and spiritual were deemed good. This dualism continues into soteriology: salvation is seen as being freed from ignorance, to being brought into this so-called secret knowledge from spiritual bodies. In the end, these spiritually alive beings will eventually break free from their earthly bodies at death to be united with God.

The implications of this strict dualism were typically followed by either one of two bifur- cations of the body and spirit: either an overt immorality, or a radical asceticism. In the former, persons were encouraged to engage in licentious behavior, since the spiritual life could not be contaminated by the fleshly, physical life. This thinking also celebrated villains of the Old Testament such as Cain and the Serpent in the Garden. Conversely, the ascetic life yielded by some viewed sexual activity as proliferating the problem since sex often resulted in procreation which would only be multiplying the souls in bondage to their evil bodies.

Gnosticism seemed to have enjoyed considerable success due, most probably, to its ability to give an answer to the problem of evil as well as the confusion inherent to humanity’s existence.

Today, our understanding of second century Gnosticism is indebted to the writings of the church fathers such as Irenaeus, Origin and Tertullian. From their arguments against Gnostic-thought we can deduce the arguments that constituted Gnosticism.

Gnosticism seemed to have enjoyed considerable success due, most probably, to its ability to given an answer to the problem of evil as well as the confusion inherent to humanity’s existence.

The nineteenth century however brought new information to bear on the study of Gnosticism. Several Gnostic manuscripts were published such as the Askew Codex and the Bruce Codex as well as The Revelation of Adam. From these manuscripts we have been able to widen our scope of study and understanding of the Gnostic-thought that prevailed in the second century.

Today, in Iraq, there are small Mandaean communities who are the sole surviving remnants of ancient Gnosticism. At present we have three of their texts that have been translated—texts that date back to the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Regarding Gnostic leaders, early Christian writers emphatically regard Simon (cf. Acts 8) as Gnosticism’s initial source. Gnostic teachings were paraded around the ancient world in places such as Antioch in Syria, and Asia Minor.

Arguably, the most infamous Gnostic teacher is a man by the name of Marcion of Pontus. Marcion arrived in Rome in around AD 140 and was instructed by a man named Credo. Marcion multiplied Credo’s teaching, which centered on a strict separation of the Old and New Testaments. This teaching purported the idea that the God of the Old Testament was evil and biased toward the Jewish peoples, whereas the God of the New was a God of grace and a lover of all peoples. This separation of Old and New Testaments also lead Marcion to heavily edit the New Testament, taking out those parts he deemed too Jewish. Although not falling within typical categories, Marcion developed his own ideas: rejecting the humanity of Jesus and the resurrection of the body, even though insisting upon faith in Christ. In this way, his view of Jesus was very similar to those of the Docetists, who saw Christ as not a material being, but only appearing to be human. Creation was thus not an act of the good God of the New Testament and needed to be rejected, the body denied and discarded; the soul and the spirit were alone redeemed. Many Christian writers fought hard to renounce and correct his teachings. Justin Martyr considered him to be assisted by the devil to blaspheme God’s creation as good. Tertullian dedicated an entire work, Against Marcion, to counter his erroneous teachings. Marcion was finally ex- communicated and the church in Rome rejected his teachings in AD. 144.

[1] Michael A. G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who they were and How they Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011), 17

[2] Ibid., 17

[3] Tim Dowley (ed.), Introduction to the History of Christianity (2nd edition) (Fortress Press, 2013), 50, 68–71

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